TV: Less Choice Please

Like other Bluth Family fans, I am excitedly looking forward to NetFlix’s May 26 launch of a new season of “Arrested Development.” If the trailer is any indication, the new season will be as mordantly funny as the original episodes, which ran on Fox from 2003-2006.

It says something about the state of contemporary television, though, that a show that barely had enough viewers to stay alive on a major broadcast network, is now being touted as a major growth driver for an online streaming service.

If it didn’t make business sense for Fox to renew the series, why would Netflix, which has about one-third the available audience, bring it back from the dead?   Obviously the difference is that as a mature business, Fox needs to make a profit on all its series, but Netflix, a still-expanding service, is willing to offer a loss leader like “Arrested Development” to attract new subscribers.

NetFlix isn’t alone in subsidizing new content. Amazon, YouTube, Hulu and countless other video-streaming channels have all begun to offer original programming.  Amazon posted 14 video pilots on its Instant Video Store and promised to produce full seasons for the most popular ones.  YouTube created 50 paid subscription channels.   Hulu has distributed more than 25 original and exclusive series. Few of these are likely to be profitable in the near term, if ever.

Last fall I wrote a piece about Jerry Seinfeld’s YouTube project “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.”  This was a high-end show with great production values and big-name talent, so it probably wasn’t cheap to produce.  Yet the last time I looked, the number of views to these shows ranged from only 23,000 to 1.5 million, hardly enough to turn a profit.  And I’ve still yet to speak to another human being who has even heard of — never mind watched — this series.

The subsidies for Amazon’s streaming business are chicken feed.  After all, this is a company willing to lose money on every book downloaded to the Kindle in order to build market share in the e-reader market.  Similarly Google is subsidizing the mapping of the entire world, so it’s not likely to worry about a few losses for its YouTube channels.

Every week seems to bring a breathless announcement about a new online TV show or streaming channel.  This leaves me exhausted.  I have already passed the point where I can keep up with what’s available on niche channels on traditional linear TV, and somehow I’m expected to stay current with the latest online offerings? 

It’s false to assume that humans crave more and more choice.  No one really wants to go to the supermarket and be confronted with 50 different kinds of ketchup.  The emotional effort of worrying about making the perfect selection, combined with post-purchase remorse that maybe you should have chosen something else, is not worth it.

I really don’t want more television options than I already have.  With hundreds of channels available on cable and thousands of old TV shows available through NetFlix, I’m always worried there might be something better than the very thing I’m watching right now.   Throwing new online shows into the mix will only make this problem worse.

And with so many viewing options, it’s become difficult to use television as a shared social lubricant.  When you get together with friends these days, someone’s watching “Homeland,” someone else is watching “Game of Thrones,” and you’re catching up on “Justified” or “Sons of Anarchy.”  It’s easier to talk about movies: even if you haven’t seen “The Great Gatsby,” you’re bound to have an informed opinion about it.

I worry too about the future of quality television if the viewing audience is sliced into too many segments.  With more shows to watch, the audience for each show is bound to be smaller.  At what point will it become uneconomical to produce high-end shows if the anticipated audience trends toward infinitesimal?  It’s fine for NetFlix to throw money at “House of Cards” and “Arrested Development” now, but what happens when its subscriber growth levels off?  There will be a very different cost-benefit analysis.

Everyone has their dirty little secret  — and mine is that I hope the original content experiments at Amazon, YouTube and Hulu flop.  I already pay too much for television, and don’t want to feel obligated to add a lot of online channels too.  Life is already tough enough knowing I’ll never have enough time to read all the books I want to.  I don’t want to have the same problem with television.

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